Family races One Lap of America

This article submitted by Michael Jacobson on 6/21/00.

Johnson's One Lap America website

It must be in their blood. The father and son team of Dick and David Johnson really like to drive. For them, the opportunity to spend a week's vacation racing around professional tracks throughout the eastern United States was irresistible.

Johnsons with Aurora The races started in Michigan and took the Johnsons to Virginia, Georgia, Florida, Connecticut, Ohio, and back to Michigan. The races were on consecutive days, within a week in early May. The Johnsons hada lot of fun, but the schedule wasn't your typical laid-back vacation. "It was a grueling event," David explained, "for the drivers and the cars."

Carol, Dick and David Johnson with the 2001 Aurora they drove in the One Lap America.

Each day, time trials were held in the morning and afternoon at another track. Like the other contestants, the Johnsons unloaded all the gear from their trunk and wrapped it in a tarp for the day to reduce the weight of the car while racing. They also tried to have the gas tank only a quarter full when racing for weight purposes.

Carol Johnson, Dick's wife and David's mother, also went on the trip to navigate, handle logistics, and share driving duties between racing sites.

As soon as their turn on the track was done, the Johnsons would pack their gear in the car and hightail it to the next track, which was at least several hours away. "As soon as you're loaded up, you're on the road to the next track," said Dick. "Most nights we would just pull into a hotel and...crash for two to four hours."

The earliest that the Johnsons arrived at a destination was 3 a.m.

The longest drive was from Michigan to Atlanta, Georgia. That night was the only one where the Johnsons didn't even bother to rent a room to get some rest.

The races
The events were held on well-known tracks like the Michigan International Speedway, Sebrink in Orlando, and the Virginia International Speedway. The tracks were set up in the Grand Prix style, with twists and irregular turns, rather than a standard oval. In most cases, part of the track was on the oval, but the route then detoured into the interior of the track for additional turns.

Time trials were held in the morning and the afternoon. The fastest cars and drivers went first at each trial.

Up to six cars would be on the track at the same time, but they would be spaced. The competition would be against the course and the clock, not directly against the other drivers. A lap would take a minute or two to drive, depending on the course.

The Johnsons' top speed was 110 miles per hour. "You could run that speed and then you'd have to get down to 30 mph for a corner," explained Dick.

The usual procedure was to drive one practice lap, then two to four "hot" laps, which were timed, and finally a cool down lap for the car. Prior to driving, the competitors could walk the track to look at the design and the curves. "Every track is totally different. There are sharper corners or narrower tracks," said David.

Dick and David drove a 2001 Aurora in the event. The car was provided to them by Oldsmobile. Their family's car dealership, Vern Johnson Motors, also sponsored the trip.

They ran the car with only a few modifications. They had the air intake opened to allow the car to breathe faster, they had a custom exhaust installed, they had a four-point safety harness put in for safety, and they upgraded to larger wheels and tires. "Those things made a difference," said Dick.

Their car was rated 90th out of the 113 participants, so both men were pleased to finish 67th. Splitting the driving duties did not improve their times. David drove in the morning time trials, and Dick drove in the afternoon. Dick was at a competitive disadvantage in the afternoon, racing against drivers who had already driven the course in the morning.

Teams that split the driving normally alternated days, but Dick and David wanted to be able to compare each track with each other. "We did it for fun," explained Dick. "There were some people who were really serious about this."

One fond memory of the trip was meeting car enthusiasts and racers from around the country. The Johnsons met John Henneshey, a nationally-known race car owner. A car belonging to Henneshey won the One Lap of America this year.

The preparation
Competing in the One Lap of America was originally David's idea. David approached his father with the idea, and Dick approved the plan without really knowing what he was getting into. When Dick and David filled out the application for One Lap of America, one of the questions was: what high-performance driving school have you attended? So, in preparation for the main event, they went to Phoenix, Arizona, last winter for a four-day driving school at the Firebird International Raceway. They practiced emergency stops, accident avoidance, and different methods for cornering and controlling a car. "We learned you can avoid something way quicker than you can stop," said Dick.

The biggest lesson was in keeping the car in balance. They learned how to lightly brake to put weight on the front tires to help turning, and to lightly throttle the car to put weight on the back tires to avoid fishtailing. Braking, they discovered, should be done in a straight line for optimum effect. And speed coming out a turn is more important than speed entering it.

If the car's balance is disturbed, Dick explained, it will react, possibly violently.

Since their training, Dick has watched professional drivers more closely, and sees them putting into practice the fundamentals they learned. "They're following these principals," he said. "They're just doing it much faster."

David is already planning for next year. "I want to do it again," he said. "I thought this was fun."

On the ride home, according to Dick, David was already asking, "What are we going to drive next year?"

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